Last week I visited the Nottingham Breast Institute on two successive days. My first visit was in my new capacity as the soon-to-be-creator of millie lingerie, my second as a patient.
First up, the clinic. Two years on from a recurrence of my breast cancer, same side, same cancer, one shitty little cell clinging to the breast wall after mastectomy and reconstruction, or so we think.
I found myself once again seated in a consulting room with a file that’s now too fat to fit into the slot in the wall, said file plonked on a chair, spewing its pages across the seat pad. Standard stuff mostly, if there is such a thing in the surreal world of a cancer clinic, breast exam, mammogram result (clear), meds review (a few things to think about, nasty Anastrozole). Then home, relieved and tired from the psychological effort it takes to get me there with a smile on my face and trust in my heart was over, I could relax.
Back to the first visit, most intriguing. Having previously written to one of my consultants about my plan to develop a new lingerie brand, millie (ta dah), he had kindly given me some time in his busy diary to talk about my ideas and share some of his knowledge with me. We chatted – all good, insightful and thought provoking in my quest to learn more about how breast cancer affects women medically.
Our discussion led onto the data medicine captures about women during their diagnosis and treatment, and I was told about a new clinical trial which captures 3D images of women’s breast to inform the consultants on how they might achieve better results during surgery, would I like to see it?
Couldn’t resist… its only a camera right? I’ll take a look then be on my way.
Now, if you’re like me, you’ll read the word ‘camera’ and think Canon, or Nikon maybe. Something you pick up, point and shoot, and hope not to chop someone’s head off, right?
Nope. This was the mother of all cameras. Massive. It had its own legs and mirrors and was nearly as tall as me.
In front of it was a blue floor mat with a cross on it (a clue of what was to come), so when I was invited to have my photograph taken, it seemed rude not to. Now this was the point at which my inner voice was saying “and there was me thinking that I might come to hospital today and NOT take my clothes off”. Nope, wrong again.
So, two lovely research assistants signed me up for the trial (my photos can be shared, they won’t see my face etc. etc. – just as well as I was a rather flushed by now), and then I found myself taking my top clothes off (again), and standing on the blue cross.
My arms were carefully arranged, not quite the Angel of the North, but not far off, and then flash, bang, wallop, what a picture. It was like being photographed by a speed camera standing still.
Re-dressed (phew) I was then showed the image captured. I’m not quite brave enough to share it here, but what I can tell you is that I had a ‘moment’. My first response was that I wanted to know what the other couple of hundred women who’d also stood on said blue cross had thought when they first saw themselves, women I’d never met, but with whom I felt a real affinity.
So, back to my picture.
It was fascinating and emotive in equal measures. I look at myself most days when I hop out of the shower, wrap a towel across my breasts, and that’s it, seen and done for another day.
To see myself in 3D on a computer screen was incredulous. My arms, neck and torso had been cleverly phased out, so I looked like an old artifact in an art museum, literally, a bust. Except when I looked closely I was quite taken aback by the image of myself; I just don’t get to see myself ‘like that’, from every angle (the image can be rotated and tipped up), from the waist looking up (the camera has 3 lenses) and from the side, in full profile.
What I saw was the full carnage of my surgery, four rounds of it; folds, creases, scrunched up bits, and discoloration, my reconstruction of ten years ago depleted by further removal of breast tissue two years ago when it recurred. I looked battered.
For the first time I could see clearly why it’s so hard for me to get dressed comfortably in my bra each day, I’m a series of squashed up and missing bits. My bras variously rub, ride up and dig in, allow my prosthesis to wobble around and make me hot, and they just don’t look so good. In fact, compared to the bras I used to wear, even after my ‘big’ operation, they are second class at best.
I took an image of the computer screen on my phone camera, though I’ve not looked at it yet, the image is still imprinted in my brain. For now, that’s where it’s going to stay, but very soon, I’ll be figuring what out what to do with all this information, and how I can put it to best use when I begin designing a range of lingerie for myself and women like me.
I’m tired of making do with bras and breast forms that have more fiddle factor than an orchestra. “It’ll do” just won’t do anymore!